In this interview we talk to Jim Metcalfe, Chief Executive of the College Development Network (CDN), who he joined in 2017. Previously he worked for the Carnegie UK Trust and Age Concern England, and also in public policy research. He was previously a students’ union executive officer at Oxford University Student Union.
1. Student engagement has been a major feature of college activity recently, where it has been a key element of the new review framework, and of course we have the SFC-funded Developing College Students’ Associations project. But what does the concept feel like to you from a sector agency perspective? What do you think the challenges and opportunities are for engaging students at a national level?
CDN works with sparqs and other student representative organisations every day. It’s critical to what we do.
Our role is to be the development and innovation agency for vocational education in Scotland. The aim is to improve the impact of that education for learners, and so it’s critical that we really understand and respond to learner expectations.
Policy and practice is being reviewed right across the education system at the moment. The calls on student organisations to weigh in on a host of consultations might seem overwhelming. What matters is that the student voice is clearly expressed and focused on the key issues that matter for students themselves. It’s a strategic challenge.
2. Are there areas where student input has been critical to the shaping of national activity, or CDN’s own work? What can they bring to the table that others can’t?
Absolutely. Just at the moment, student organisations are playing a significant role in how we at CDN are rethinking our programme of work for the coming years. They will be central to a number of new activities we will be undertaking, like promoting key career paths or embedding gender actions plans in colleges.
We’re re-gearing many of our events to more closely engage students, too. So from next year we’ll be introducing a major new College Expo for Scotland, a national event with hundreds of activities with both college staff and students as the core audiences. Students will play a starring role in the design and evaluation of that kind of programme.
3. How does all that compare or contrast with you own past experiences as a student officer?
I was involved with student representation at a time when tuition fees were being introduced. That dominated, and to some extent poisoned, relationships between institutions, agencies, and student bodies. I think many students felt their voices were not being heard in the design of the new system. That dislocation, it could be argued, still blights the system these many years later.
I’d say that much of the student engagement I see in colleges, and with which CDN is engaged as a national agency, is a big step forward from those days!
4. What’s caused that step forward, do you think? Some will no doubt cite finance as a continuing issue for college students, so presumably despite any disagreements there are other factors that have created a more constructive engagement in our sector.
My experience is that proactive student associations are respected and listened to closely by senior staff and board members. Where the principal – student association president relationship works well, it can really drive a positive and ambitious culture in a college.
Through the work that CDN does in helping to train student association elected representatives and board members, we get to see the seriousness with which they are engaging with their roles.
5. Beyond education you have worked in the voluntary sector and the world of public policy. What do you think we in Scotland’s tertiary education sector can learn from how other sectors engage their stakeholders?
Firstly, I think we have to work harder, as advocates for tertiary education, to tell the whole story of what we accomplish for society. The economic impact, the wellbeing value of education, the social inclusion effect that vocational teaching delivers. Many people don’t understand the huge breadth of what the sector does – and what you don’t understand, you tend not to value.
Secondly, I think we could be better partners. Of course it’s a generalisation, but we are perhaps a little behind in how open we are to creative collaborations with people from outside our own sphere.
Thanks to Jim for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.